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25th Sep 2020

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The slow death of EU Christian Democracy

In October 1946 the Swiss priest Joseph Meier attended a meeting of Italy's emerging Christian Democratic party.

He was surprised by what he heard: "The Italians stated that they were categorically opposed to the participation of delegates from Franco's Spain", he reported back to Switzerland, adding: "They insisted that democracy was the sole political system compatible with Christian beliefs."

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  • A powerful competitor has emerged from the nationalist far-right, trying to replace Christian democracy as the main right-wing force in EU/Europe

Meier was surprised as before the Second World War, Christian parties' commitment to democracy was far from unequivocal.

But after the war, Christian Democratic parties adopted a political formula that brought them political domination in much of western Europe for two decades.

Beyond a firm commitment to democracy, this ideology included a belief in the social market economy, a re-invention of relations between the states of western Europe, an attachment to European values rooted in Christianity and anti-communism.

The Europe of today is in many aspects built on theses foundations. But they are under attack.

A powerful competitor has emerged from the nationalist far-right, trying to replace Christian democracy as the main right-wing force in EU-Europe.

Whether we look at Italy's League, Poland's Law and Justice (PiS) party, Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD), the French National Rally or Spain's Vox party: they oppose, in different degrees and variations, the heritage of Christian Democracy.

Poland's PiS is dismantling the checks and balances that ensure a democratic process, the AfD wants to reverse European integration and return to a Bismarck-style foreign policy of big powers, the National Rally has become more leftist on economic matters.

These parties fight Christian Democracy in the open, trying to establish themselves as the main political offer on the right-wing.

Another nationalist party, Hungary's Fidesz party, has chosen a more complicated path.

Fidesz - the extreme-right's Trojan Horse

It pretends to be Christian Democratic and is still a (suspended) member of the European People's Party (EPP) in the European Parliament, but it attacks the tenets of Christian Democracy while trying to re-define it.

Hungary receives massive financial support from the EU, but Fidesz has framed the Union as an enemy. The fight against imaginary enemies is an essential part of its strategy.

It mobilises electorates and obscures the government's corruption problems. The friend-foe mindset is a heritage of communism, that has nothing in common with western European political traditions of compromise and respect of ground rules.

Fidesz is flirting with Russia and China.

For them Hungary is of interest because it is a member of the EU and can be used to break the EU's unity. Instead of strengthening Europe's sovereignty and might within the EU's framework, where smaller member states have rights and votes – an invention of Christian Democracy – Fidesz is undermining it.

As has been much reported, Fidesz has also weakened democracy since it came to power ten years ago.

Afraid of open debate and fair political competition, it has barricaded itself behind a fortress of complex legal rules, turned public media into an organ of party propaganda and indirectly controls many private media.

Elections are not fair anymore. Christian Democracy's unquestioned allegiance to democracy is broken.

After the war, Christian Democracy stood against the fetishisation of the nation state demonstrated by fascist regimes.

They believed in a core of personal autonomy and dignity that no state should touch.

Many of their leaders had suffered or witnessed the brutality and abuse of fascism. Orban claims that Christian Democracy is illiberal in character.

But in its core belief in personal dignity and freedom, it is close to the liberal school of thinking, even if the source of this belief is religious rather than secular.

Fidesz's incessant negative focus on gay or transgender people and rights betrays this tradition. Post-war Christian Democrats were not in favour of gay rights, as 70 years ago homosexuality was still criminalised across Europe.

Many modern-day Christian Democrats recognise that sexual self-determination is part and parcel of respecting personal freedoms and dignity from state interference.

Indeed, post-war Christian Democrats modernised many of their political beliefs - such as overcoming the pre-war division between Catholics and Protestants.

Christian Democrats hold up the principle of subsidiarity - power should not be concentrated in the central state, instead, problems should be addressed at the level where they can be best solved – often that is the lower level.

Fidesz has used emergency legislation in the context of the coronavirus threat to divert funds from the municipalities to the central government.

Last year opposition parties won elections in many of these municipalities, now they see themselves deprived of income to implement their programmes.

In short, Fidesz is the extreme right's Trojan horse in the Christian Democratic camp.

It is breaking the proudest achievements of post-war Christian democracy to revive the pre-war authoritarian right based on the extremely polarising playbook of the US alt-Right.

The fact that the EPP has still not expelled it from its ranks attests to a loss of confidence in the prevailing relevance of contemporary.

As the extreme right is discrediting itself in many countries, Christian Democrats should be more confident in their own political offer.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO that supports political participation.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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